Nicola Sturgeon has suggested the Scottish National party would hold another independence referendum if it wins next year’s Holyrood elections on a manifesto promising a second vote.
The first minister, speaking in the first televised Scottish leaders’ debate of the election campaign, had tried to brush off questions from the audience and host Bernard Ponsonby about her plans for staging a second referendum.
She said a referendum was off the table for this general election but, pressed on whether it would be in the SNP manifesto for 2016, she responded: “We will write that manifesto when we get there. I will fight one election at a time [and] I will decide the content of our next manifesto when we get there, and people can decide whether or not they vote for that.”
But in one of the clearest statements yet that the SNP could introduce a second plebiscite within the next Scottish parliament, she was booed by some parts of the audience when she said: “If the people of Scotland don’t vote for a party with a commitment in a manifesto to a referendum, there won’t be another referendum, that’s the point I’m making. The people are in charge, not politicians.”
Her remarks came during an at times ill-tempered but closely argued debate organised by STV in Edinburgh. In 2013, Sturgeon had said a referendum would be a “once in a generation” event, defining a generation as every 15 years, but that position has been dropped entirely.
The SNP’s support has surged sharply since it lost last September’s independence vote 55% to 45%, with its membership hitting a record 103,000 and its general election polling figures consistently reaching 45% – 17 points ahead of Labour.
Sturgeon now insists it will be a matter for Scottish voters to decide if and when another referendum will be staged but there are doubts the SNP will risk a second referendum with plunging oil prices putting further pressure on Scotland’s GDP and tax revenues.
In the first key exchange of the debate, which was peppered with clashes over NHS funding, cutting the UK’s debt levels and Labour’s policies on tuition fees and keeping nuclear weapons, the Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, had rejected Sturgeon’s offer to back up a minority Labour government.
The debate was a significant test for Murphy, with Labour desperately trying to close the gap with the SNP, and he made clear his desire to best the first minister. Sturgeon scored a significant coup when she faced the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and five other party leaders in an ITV UK leaders’ debate last week, winning admiration for being calm and focused as she sought to attack Miliband from the left.
At one point, Murphy chided Sturgeon over the factual accuracy of her attacks on Labour’s policies for cutting debt and public spending, stating: “You may get away with it when you’re having a debate in England but you won’t get away with it here.”
Murphy also said that Labour would not need the SNP to win the election or form the next government. “Nicola, we don’t need your help to do this,” he said, after she told the audience she believed a far larger group of SNP MPs at Westminster could “make sure that Labour keeps its promises.”
The first minister said Labour had a history of breaking trust with its voters. She said Tony Blair, who on Tuesday took a frontline role in the election campaign to back Miliband, had been elected in 1997 on a groundswell of “hope and optimism”.
But within months, Blair had introduced tuition fees for university students, begun the process of privatisation in the NHS and later took part in the Iraq war. The SNP could prevent a minority Labour government under Miliband from repeating those errors, she said.
Murphy also indicated that Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament. Murphy told Sturgeon the last time the losing party had formed a minority government was in 1924. “It was so long ago, there wasn’t a Queen’s speech. It was a king’s speech,” he said.
Sturgeon retorted that Gordon Brown had tried to broker a deal to continue as prime minister despite coming second behind the Tories in 2010 – disproving Murphy’s thesis. But the Scottish Labour leader implied that the former prime minister was wrong, saying there was “an unstoppable force” behind the Tories which made it clear they were correct to form the government.
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